At Bellator 192, the welterweight championship fight is not the main event. It takes second billing to a nostalgic affair where a pudgy Rampage Jackson will glare at Chael Sonnen for three rounds while sporadically being taken down.
The two welterweights get ready. MacDonald looks off to one side, raises one fist almost as an afterthought, while Lima bounces on his toes energetically. MacDonald is a big man for 170lbs, but Lima is huge, the first welterweight he’s fought that looks visibly bigger than him. The fight starts and MacDonald closes Lima down, using his underrated ability to back powerful fighters up with little more than small, accurate steps and a left hand. For two rounds MacDonald controls the fight, forcing Lima up against the cage, probing with a jab. He periodically lands a cross or elbow, and wraps up the clinch.
Sporadically but with growing frequency, Lima cuts kicks at MacDonald’s leg. These are aimed low, at the calf, and swung like a hammer. Sometimes, MacDonald counters with takedowns. Sometimes he doesn’t. He starts to reach for the kicks more, and begins to get unbalanced when they connect.
Then, in the third round, MacDonald is blown right off his feet. He lies on his back and looks up at Lima as a mound of tissue grows almost immediately out of his shin.
Here we go again.
After Rory MacDonald lost two straight, some had doubts about where he was going. The horrific war against Robbie Lawler was the best fight of the year -maybe the best MMA fight ever- but in the followup bout against Stephen Thompson he looked tentative and unsure, unable to close down the gangly karateka. His nose was shattered again, and in the late going, MacDonald resorted to wrapping his arms around his own face to protect it.
Maybe, people muttered, Lawler had broken him.
Unhappy with the money from the UFC, and with a new child to support, MacDonald moved to Bellator. He took time away to heal, and looked near-flawless in taking out Paul Daley in his debut. Those same grumblings were still there; that the fight had been so one-sided that MacDonald’s heart and durability hadn’t been called into question, but the win got him the shot at welterweight champion Douglas Lima.
Yanking out the heart
Former BE alum Dallas Winston called his breakdowns “Dissections”, and this is a great analogy for post-fight and pre-fight analysis. There’s no way to describe a fight as a living thing, but you can try and take out one or two interlinked systems and attempt to show the ways in which they connect and influence; cut down into the dead bout and perhaps trace out how something like its circulatory system works.
There are other ways of doing things. You can rummage around in the corpse, and then pull out one dripping internal organ, hold it up and triumphantly proclaim that this here is the heart of the thing. “Cain Velasquez lost because of elevation,” “Anderson Silva lost because he was messing around”, “Conor had too many breakfasts” and suchlike.
Or. “Robbie Lawler beat Rory MacDonald because he was a better athlete; because he was faster, stronger and more durable.”
In saying that someone isn’t a great athlete, it doesn’t mean they’re Ryan Couture, or Dustin Hazelett, or one of the many who literally had no chance at sustained success at the top level of MMA. MacDonald is a good athlete. He’s not a great one. He combines steady, long range distance management and a broad technical base in part because he has to. He lacks the explosion to consistently drive two or three techniques through an opponent like GSP’s jab and double leg, and the durability to get in the pocket and trade with tougher and more powerful fighters. Knock-down, drag-out battles with Condit and Lawler left him with a broken orbital and a crushed nose respectively.
In that fight at UFC 189, where he was up on all of the judges’ scorecards, landed more strikes and had come the closest to finishing, MacDonald couldn’t keep up any more. It was a fight of back and forth, and technical bait-and-switch, and heart, and will, and it was also a fight between one guy who could physically withstand getting hit by the other, and one who couldn’t.
The ability to take a punch is often romanticized as being apart from physical ability, but it is also physical- the shape of the skull; the broadness of the neck and the strength of the muscles, the ability to absorb punches down through the posterior chain and into the ground through the toes, like electricity.
When Jon Jones was on the way up, there’d those who insisted that he’d never been tested because he’d never taken a serious strike. It was possible that Jones might have a bad chin- at the blunt physical level he looks weird- but it was doubtful, because areas of athleticism are interconnected. When someone is fast enough to adjust to a punch as they see it coming at the last moment, and powerful enough to shake off the effects, and confident enough in their physicality, they tend to have a great chin. Jones, unsurprisingly, had and has a great chin.
This is an instinctive kind of Death Star Exhaust Port theory carried in the thought that there has to be a weakness somewhere, often born more in hope and in an ideal of fairness than in reality. The overlapping nature of things like explosiveness and power, durability and endurance tends to mean that fighters are markedly less likely to have a single glaring physical weakness the more physically gifted they are. BJ Penn wasn’t just flexible and gifted at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It also quickly became apparent that he also had an iron chin, bricks for fists, and skin like leather.
One of the small markers to look for in a combined athleticism for MMA is takedown defense. Not necessarily the idea of distance maintenance, or a good sprawl or limp-leg, but more when one fighter throws a perfectly timed takedown, seemingly gets in on the other’s waist or hips… and it just doesn’t work. The other explodes upwards and back, wrenching their hips up and around through space like a salmon jumping up a waterfall. They don’t stop stop fighting back, until they’re back on their feet. Penn, Dominick Cruz against Urijah Faber in their second fight, Demetrious Johnson in his second fight against Ian McCall, GSP vs Koscheck.
You can get better at this kind of thing, but I’m not sure it can specifically be trained, because there are so many things happening so fast. The center of gravity of the body is shifting quickly, and changes with every defensive movement. It needs power, flexibility, reflexes and an understanding of where the body is being pushed at a deeply instinctive level. At one point in their fight, Robbie Lawler stopped a takedown in that explosive way. Rory MacDonald will never, ever do anything like that.
A slow tide overtook average athletes like Frank Mir and Kenny Florian a while ago, men who tried their damndest and simply weren’t physically gifted enough to break the top of the sport. Now, it laps at the feet of good athletes; strong and fast compared to most of the fighters around them, but who just never had things like salmon-leap takedown defense or an iron chin, increasingly having to fight against those who do.
Athleticism is important, but no guarantee. MMA has a sizable share of almost-were and never-was fighters who couldn’t channel obvious talents into championships, but what were freak one-offs are gradually filtering more and more into the sport, notably at welterweight and below. The mechanisms for developing them are better defined. Fighters know where they should be going if they’re a promising prospect, and the gyms they’re going to are getting better at laying the tracks for talent. The chances of an elite athlete falling through the cracks because they’re poorly-trained are diminishing. Increasingly, the differences between fighters are in relatively innate qualities: athleticism and aptitude.
Aptitude is likely the real reason why MacDonald was a fighter who has been looked at as a promising prospect... because Rory MacDonald loves MMA. He really loves MMA.
There are fighters who love striking. Lawler does; he lives for hitting people, but he does not love grappling. Stuck on bottom, he starts to snarl and buck, or visibly roll his eyes. There are fighters who love to test themselves, like Carlos Condit. Some have a taste for being the hammer, but hate being the nail.
Rory MacDonald is the about only fighter I have ever seen who seems to love almost everything about this sport. He’s happy grinding away as a wrestler, and in competition jiu jitsu, where he calmly said that he’d let an opponent break his arm. He can while away a bout doing little more than tapping with a jab, but loves to go to war and described the experience of having his nose shattered and rivulets of blood streaming down his throat as “the greatest moment of my life.”
The depth of his obsession leads to good-natured (if tiresome) mockery, but it is also humbling to see.
When he fought Demian Maia, MacDonald was put on his back in the first frame, beaten to something close to a 10-8 as Maia floated over his butterfly guard and passed at will. MacDonald looked less terrified or confused than he did absorbed. He got back up, and then came back out in the second round, and immediately started throwing kicks to Maia’s gut.
It’s an uncommon response to being taken down and beaten up. Standing on one leg to kick is obviously dangerous against someone who wants to wrestle, and yet MacDonald didn’t seem to care. When Maia managed to get him down in the third, he forced his way back to his feet. There was nowhere he didn’t want to be, and nowhere that he feared. Being on the feet was just a good place to win the fight.
Tyron Woodley is a human proximity mine, and MacDonald overloaded his distance perception with feints and diffused his fearsome cross with a jab and high elbow frame. He countered the blitz off the cage from the better wrestler with his own takedowns.
To love every part of the game to the point where everything has equal value is in part to be able to fight everywhere. In truth, in today’s pace and power game, MacDonald can seem like an artefact from a different timeline. At his best he builds an image, a picture of another fighter’s flaws drawn in negative space.
These pictures are complex, and in that complexity, fragile.
MacDonald spends the rest of round three on his back, and then limps back to his corner. He’s up on the cards again, but he looks to have taken far more damage. That soft, beaky nose looks like it’s broken again, and his shin bulges grotesquely. He appears to be about one good leg kick away from the fight being over, and Lima barely seems scratched. The broad pieces of the plan look to be pressure and jabs to beat kicks; the clinch if Lima freezes, and takedowns when he rushes out, and they’re starting to break down. Standing with Lima risks what remains of his support being chopped out from under him. Once again, an approach is being broken apart by differences in sheer physicality.
MacDonald rushes out for a takedown to start round three, and Lima rotates, turns, and flips him over with an uchi mata, slipping directly into mount. Bad to worse.
MacDonald holds on tightly from bottom. Lima is left in a dilemma: open up with strikes and risk losing the position, or work for control. He opts for the latter, and minutes tick away. MacDonald manages to retain guard, and the referee forces them up.
The ruined leg is still the liability, and Lima swings at it again. MacDonald reads it, and throws himself into a counter takedown, ending the round on top.
The last round, then. He grabs the body lock, wrenches the bigger man down, and Lima’s great flaw, his passive ground work, comes to the fore. MacDonald lands a hard elbow, and another, and their blood is mixing now. It is ugly, ugly as the minutes tick away, but MacDonald is, as Luke Thomas put it, like a starving man fighting for food.
When the bell rings, MacDonald struggles to stand. He later says that his leg is the worst pain he’s ever felt in a fight. That this includes the orbital and nose breaks is an terrible thing to think of.
48-47, 49-45, 49-46
The new champion is typically understated.
“He’s the best fighter I ever fought, easy. I came in the best I’ve ever felt and this guy gave me challenges everywhere. It was an honor to compete with him.. I definitely feel like the best in the world after fighting that guy. I think I have a person growing inside me down there (in my leg). I can’t really walk on it but whatever I got through it”
His corner carries him off, men on either side, keeping weight off. It’s an appropriately raw palanquin for the Red King’s coronation. It might be six months until he’s back, fighting in a body which is just a touch too slow and breakable to really belong at this level; hunting the perfect way of using every part of this sport. Drawing those images of an opponent with a fine neutralizing brush, and when that doesn’t work just daubing them with their blood, and his own.